Dean Macris, San Francisco’s former planning director, delivered a blunt message to Fisherman’s Wharf’s powerful restaurant owners last year: Accept the city’s plan to overhaul the wharf or risk being left behind.
During a meeting at Alioto’s Restaurant, Macris, a longtime power broker who advises the city on major projects, described the city’s $15 million plan as a last-ditch effort to turn the fabled wharf into a destination not only for tourists but also for San Franciscans who have shunned the area for years. If the plan was not approved, he told the crowd, Fisherman’s Wharf faced “a long slide downhill,” Macris recalled in an interview.
The restaurant owners, including some of San Francisco’s oldest and most influential families, say they have gotten the message.
After decades of divisiveness and inaction, during which Fisherman’s Wharf deteriorated from a vibrant fishing center into a hodgepodge of shops selling sunglasses and T-shirts, city officials and business owners have agreed on a plan to create a five-block esplanade with stone streets, outdoor cafes and sweeping views of the bay.
“The merchants realize now that it’s time to make the area more pedestrian-, bike- and public-friendly; that’s what this is all about,” said Nunzio Alioto, owner of Alioto’s Restaurant and a cousin of former Mayor Joseph Alioto.
By the time the project is completed, Alioto promised, the Bay Area will have a new opinion of Fisherman’s Wharf. “Instead of hearing, ‘Oh, it’s the wharf,’ we’ll hear people walking our streets and admiring the wharf as one of the world’s most beautiful ports,” he said.
Financing has not been completed, but city officials say the proposal is the best chance yet to achieve a long-needed makeover, which has repeatedly stalled over the inability of the district’s strong-willed business community to agree on a plan.
“The stars have lined up this time,” said Aaron Peskin, the former Board of Supervisors president who has pushed the wharf project.
Two factors — a younger generation of leaders in the wharf community and pressure from city planners — helped build support, Peskin said.
“Fisherman’s Wharf is the goose that lays the golden egg day in and day out for the city,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to bring the wharf into the 21st century.”
Despite its tacky appearance, Fisherman’s Wharf ranks as the No. 8 tourist attraction in the United States, with 10 million visitors annually, according to a Forbes.com survey. But the wharf of today gives little hint of its glorious past. Built on rubble from the 1906 earthquake, the district for decades was home to a thriving fishing industry that employed thousands of fishermen, many of them Sicilian.
“It was wall-to-wall Italians,” said Lou Marcelli, 82, who came to San Francisco in 1943 and worked for years as a herring fisherman. “The wharf was alive. There’d be groups of fishermen everywhere, talking together, reminiscing, mending nets.”